First drive: 2016 Kia Sorento

Quieter, roomier and more stylish than ever, Kia's Sorento keeps getting better

With its high level of refinement, new engine, and solid driving feel, Kia’s all-new Sorento is an impressive symbol of the brand’s dramatic move upmarket.

You can tell a lot about a car by the way the doors sound.

When I was in high school an indeterminate number of years ago, I had a friend with a 2002 Kia Sephia. Between runs to Taco Bell and weekly track meets, I became pretty familiar with the clunky compact and the empty metallic clang the doors made.

Fast forward to 2014, and Kia has made significant strides in both quality and style. At the 2016 Sorento’s first drive event in Lake Tahoe, California, this sentiment became clearer than ever — especially after I closed the door.

Movin’ on up

Instead of the hard, rattling plastic I was accustomed to in my youth, the all-new Sorento is blanketed with soft-touch materials inside. The available Nappa leather seats are delightfully comfortable, with 14-way adjustability coming along with higher trim packages. The redesigned dashboard features long, unbroken lines, uncluttered by bulky displays and errantly placed vents.

Even when compared to the 2015 version, the new Sorento looks streamlined, capable, and mature.

If you had told me back in high school that a 2016 Kia would be this refined, I probably would have rolled my eyes.

The Korean brand’s improvements are further materialized in the abundance of tech available, a standout of which is the optional 12-speaker audio system with Harmon’s Clari-Fi digital reconstruction.

Using a special algorithm, Clari-Fi “works in real-time to rebuild audio details lost in digitally compressed music,” according to the company’s statement, and the result is clear, undistorted sound even at full volume. The science of it may seem a little ambiguous at first, but I assure you the result is quite pleasing to the ears.

Furthermore, there’s a capable navigation system, a Surround View Monitor, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and Forward Collision Warning available.

If you had told me back in high school that a 2016 Kia would be this refined, and feature a panoramic moonroof that makes luxury brands jealous, I probably would have rolled my eyes. But driving is believing. And despite exceptionally stormy conditions on our drive, the Kia shone through.

Moving with confidence

It was quite a windy jaunt around Tahoe. In fact, the 100-mph gusts were enough to leave a tractor-trailer keeled over on the side of the road.

Concerning roadside imagery aside, the U.S.-built Sorento felt planted and secure wherever we took it.

2016 Kia Sorento

All-wheel drive is available on all trims for a $1,800 premium, and the CUV’s engine range has been expanded for the 2016 model year. The base 2.4-liter, 185-horsepower four-cylinder is a carryover, as is the range-topping 3.3-liter V6 that produces 290 hp and 252 pound-feet of torque. The six-pot is able to tow 5,000 pounds with AWD.

New for the crossover is a 2.0-liter turbo, which makes 240 hp and 260 lb-ft. Torque peaks at just 1,450 rpm in the Optima-based powerplant, which makes for sporty, low speed driving. However, I found that the engine really runs out of breath past the 4,000-4,500 rpm mark. With AWD equipped, the 2.0-liter can tow 3,500 lbs.

Overall, the Sorento is smooth and confident on the road, no matter if you’re in the cushioned front seats or the available third row.

There are some growing pains though.

Unlike many of its CUV brethren, there’s no CVT option on the Sorento. In general, Kia prefers conventional automatics over CVTs for their sporty driving feel. From an enthusiast standpoint, I have to agree, but you have to wonder if it’ll hurt the vehicle’s ‘to be determined’ mpg ratings. Also, the adaptive cruise control (ACC) seems a little bit indecisive.

One more thing about that third row we talked about: it’s standard on the V6, optional on the base four-cylinder, but curiously not available on the turbo at all. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

At the end of the day, these are relatively small and forgivable gripes. The real question is, how does the bigger, smarter, and more expressive Sorento stack up?

Sizing up the competition

In comparison to the 2015 version, it knocks it out of the park. The CUV has 3.1-inch longer wheelbase (which means more rear legroom), the interior is worlds better, and it looks sexier outside as well.

Add in the new engine, stereo, quad-LED foglights, and the fact that its $24,900 MSRP is only $600 more than the outgoing model, and you have a hat-tipping success.

Overall, the Sorento is smooth and confident on the road.

As far as competition, Kia says the Sorento’s main targets are the Toyota Highlander, Ford Edge, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Edge’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost will probably make it sportier, and the Cherokee will likely fare better off-road, but — as always — the Kia’s value is a high point.

For not much more than a Honda CR-V, you’ll get a larger, better looking package with more options and available room for seven. And there’s always that famous warranty.

Start tacking on the accessories, however, and the playing field begins to even out. Our range-topping SXL V6 AWD ran $46,720 as tested, which included the $2,500 Tech Package, carpeted floor mats, and the $895 destination charge.

Conclusion

If the 2016 Sorento is good, the 2017 and 2018 models should be even better.

Speaking to some of Kia’s project planners at the event, they strongly hinted that a seven or even eight-speed transmission could debut in the CUV soon. Additionally, safety features like forward emergency braking should be available on future Sorentos, as the components simply weren’t available in time for the crossover’s 2015 launch. There may also be a diesel version in the pipeline as well.

So, as much as Kia has improved over the last decade, it looks like the brand’s best days are yet to come.

The 2016 Kia Sorento goes on sale in January.

Highs

  • Redesigned interior is clean and comfortable
  • Smooth, quiet ride
  • Capable engine range includes new 2.0-liter turbo
  • Massive panoramic moonroof

Lows

  • No third row seat available on Turbo models
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